Can Playdates Supplement Distanced Learning During COVID-19?
As we have reported in the past few weeks as schools across the province have resumed, this time of year often brings many urgent motions to the court by separated or divorced parents who are at-odds over how and where their child will attend school in the Fall.
In light of the new challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic – including the controversy over in-person versus remote learning – the degree of fine-tuning on this issue has been noteworthy. The law continues to develop and be clarified incrementally as courts hear individual cases, many featuring innovative arguments on either side of the debate.
In a recent case called Zinati v. Spence, the court was asked to reflect on one of these narrow issues: In support of one parent’s bid for at-home (rather than in-class) learning, do scheduled playdates with friends give a child enough opportunity to develop social skills?
The separated parents, who had joint decision-making authority over their 6-year-old child, disagreed over whether she should return to in-person learning, or else be enrolled in an online learning program made necessary by COVID-19.
The child had been attending school until March 2020, when the provincial government mandated the closure of physical schools in favour of online education. Now that her school had reopened in September 2020, the parents were offered the choice of whether to send her back to classes or continue with online studies.
The mother wanted the child to return to the classroom; the father wanted her to stay at home. Under the father’s plan, he offered to arrange playdates with some of the child’s friends, as a means of ensuring the child’s social skills continued to develop.
After looking at a number of factors, the court ruled that it was in the best interests of the child that she return to in-person classes. It acknowledged the child would accordingly “face some risk of exposure” to COVID-19, but concluded she would benefit from being with teachers and peers, and importantly would continue to develop her social skills in that environment.
On the specific issue of whether the planned playdates could suffice for the child’s social development, the court complained that the father’s proposal lacked specificity: He had not indicated how often the child would see her peers, or how many might be involved. Also, once school had resumed and the friends had returned to their chosen learning environments, the opportunity for playdates would be more limited in any case. Plus, the father had tendered no evidence that he had spoken with the families of his child’s friends to determine their willingness to have regular playdates after the school year started.
Finally, the court pointed out that the father’s playdate plan appeared to involve mainly other children who had all returned to in-person learning; this would actually create another potential risk of COVID-19 exposure for the child, which had to be factored into the overall “best interests of the child” equation that guided these determinations.
Against the background of these particular facts, the court ruled:
I am not satisfied that occasional playdates can meet [the child’s] need for time with peers over an undetermined period of time, until the pandemic comes under control.
For the full text of the decision, see:
Zinati v. Spence, 2020 ONSC 5231